01/13/2006 12:00AM

New bets - now there's an idea


NEW YORK - At long last, the American racing industry seems to be embracing the idea that every business needs to change the content and pricing of its retail products on a regular basis to retain and attract customers.

Last year, dime superfectas spread from a handful of small tracks to most major venues, and new wagers such as the Choose Six enjoyed trial runs. The new year has seen a flurry of similar developments:

* The Maryland Racing Commission last Tuesday enacted emergency regulations allowing tracks to offer bets in units of less than $1 and is considering a request by tracks to offer a new Quad-Trifecta bet, where a bettor must come up with trifectas in four consecutive or designated races.

* The New York Racing Association received approval to develop a Grand Slam wager, a pick four variation where the bettor must "load the bases" with three show bets and then pick the winner of the last leg.

* Beulah Park will begin offering a 25-cent Fortune 6, a pick six in which the carryover and jackpot portion of the pool will be paid out only if there is a single winning ticket.

All of these new wagers have their shortcomings, and none seems likely to hit any home runs. The Choose Six, where bettors were supposed to pick any six races on the card for a pick six, completely missed the point of multi-race wagers, which is for everyone to have to deal with the same races. The Grand Slam, while intriguing, seems unlikely to attract any action from current pick-four players.

The Quad Trifecta just seems bizarre, with an absurd degree of difficulty and literally billions of possible combinations. The Fortune 6, modeled on successful similar bets in Puerto Rico and Mexico, will only work at smaller venues where there is not already a robust $2 pick six.

Even if none of these particular wagers catch on, the industry should keep trying. It is refreshing to see track operators trying to address two ongoing problems in the industry's wagering offerings: A general lack of new products, and the lack of affordability in the newest and most tantalizing ones.

Racing has been kept afloat during the last 20 years, and avoided the catastrophe that would have occurred if it continued to depend on live attendance and handle, through simulcasting and the proliferation of exotic wagering. This has worked out well for high-end bettors who can afford to play pick-six carryovers, plot out complex pick-four tickets, and chase longshot-laden superfectas, but less so for the average player who wants to invest something like $16 to $36 rather than hundreds in such propositions.

Outlays that small in a superfecta or pick six are virtually doomed to failure, because bettors simply do not have enough combinations covered for any realistic chance of success. A lack of positive reinforcement, less churn, and quicker depletion of bankroll simply busts out smaller players quicker. Tracks that have rejected dime supers by saying that they tie up betting lines and hurt the chances that a whale can scoop the whole pool are basically telling their median customers that they are simply too poor to play these bets and should get out of the way of better-heeled customers.

There is no reason, for example, that all trifectas, as well as superfectas, should not be offered with a dime minimum. What in the world is wrong with letting someone make a six-horse trifecta box, which requires 120 combinations, for $12 at a dime unit or $30 at a quarter unit instead of demanding he spend $120 at a $1 minimum? People aren't going to bet any less. More likely, they will bet more because they are cashing more often and not constantly feeling they are being bullied by bigger bankrolls.

In the irretrievable days of nothing but win, place, and show, bankroll didn't matter. A guy betting $5 to win and place had the exact same opportunities and odds as one betting $500 to win and place. Today, the three- and four-figure bettors are exploiting the two-digit bettors. This will ultimately have the same effect as driving the four worst players at a poker table out of the game. Eventually, the sharks will have no one to feed on but one another, never a pretty sight.

In exploring new products at lower minimums, racing is wisely emulating the slot-machine business, which has enjoyed the kind of new business and customer retention racing can only dream about. New machines are moved on and off casino floors almost daily, and the most popular ones are those that give players "credits" in denominations as low as a penny and encourage them to buy dozens or hundreds of different permutations on a single spin.

It may horrify racetrack operators to think they can learn anything from slot machines, but as long as they're installing the evil contraptions in their grandstands, it might pay to look at some of the reasons that small bettors increasingly find them more enticing than mutuel machines these days.